Perfect art results only when designer and worker are entirely in sympathy, when the designer knows quite what the worker can do with her materials, and when the worker not only understands what the designer meant, but feels with him. And it is the test of a practical designer that he not only knows the conditions under which his design is to be carried out, but is ready to submit to them.
The distinction here made between designer and embroiderer is not casual, but aforethought, notwithstanding the division of labour it implies. Enthusiasm has a habit of outrunning reason. Because in some branches of industry subdivision of labour has been carried to absurd excess, it is the fashion to demand in all branches of it the autograph work of one person. That is no less absurd. To try and link together faculties which Nature has for the most part put asunder, is futile.
To insist that designer and worker should be one and the same person is to set up an ideal for the most part impossible of fulfilment. When that happens (Illustrations 61 and 88) it is well. But the attempt to realise it commonly works out in one of two ways: either a good design is spoilt in the working for want of executive skill on the part of the designer, or good workmanship is spent on poor design, as good, perhaps, as one has any right to expect of a needleworker, skilful as she may be.
The fact is, you can only make out all the world to be designers by reducing design to what all the world can do. And that is not much. There is a point of view from which it does not amount to design at all.
The study of design forms part of the education of an embroidress, not so much that she may design what she works, but that she may know in the first place what good design is, and, in the second, be equal to the ever-recurring occasion when a design has to be modified or adapted. If, in thus manipulating design not hers, she should discover a faculty of invention, she will want no telling to exercise it. A designer wants no encouragement to design - she designs.
There would be no occasion to dwell upon this, were it not for the prevalence at the present moment of the idea that a worker, in whatever art or handicraft, is in artistic duty bound to design whatever she puts hand to do. That is a theory as false as it is unkind : let no embroidress be discouraged by it. Let her, unless she is inwardly impelled to invent, remain content to do good needlework. That is her art. Her business as an artist is to make beautiful things. Co-operation in the making of them is no crime.
And what, then, about originality? Originality is a gift beyond price. But it is not a thing which even the designer should struggle after. It comes, if it is there. There is a revengeful consolation for the pain we suffer from design about us writhing in the endeavour to be up-to-date, in the thought that its contortions tell what pain it cost to do it. The birth of beauty is a less agonising travail; and the thing to seek is beauty, not novelty. Whoever planned the lines of the border in Illustration 99 (Renaissance Ornament), or treated the leafage in Illustration 100 (Leaf Treatment In Applique), was not trying to be original, but determined to do his best. Artists and workers of individuality and character are themselves, without being so much as aware that originality has gone out of them.
To assume, then, that every needlewoman is, or can ever be, competent to design what she embroiders, is to make very small account of design. How is it possible to take design seriously and yet think it is to be mastered without years of more serious study than workwomen can or will as a rule devote to it ? Any cultivated woman may for herself invent (if it is to be called invention) something better worth working than
is to be bought ready to work. And that may-do for many purposes, so long as it does not claim to be more than it is; but in the case of really important work, to be executed at considerable cost not only of material but of patient labour, surely it is worth giving serious thought to its design. The scant consideration commonly given to it hardly suggests a worker very much in earnest. Or has she thought? And is she persuaded that her artless spray of flowers, or the ironed-off pattern she has bought, is all that art could be? It would be rude to tell her she was wasting silk!
A worker should know what is worth working; and the only way of knowing is to study, to look at good work, old work by preference; it is worth no one's while to praise that unduly. And if in all that is now so readily accessible she finds nothing to admire, nothing which appeals to her, nothing which inspires her, then her case is hopeless. If, on the other hand, she finds only so much as one style of work sympathetic to her, studies that, lets its spirit sink into her, tries to do something worthy of it, then she is on the right road. Measure yourself with the best, not with the common run of work; if that should put you out of conceit with your own work, no great harm is done; sooner or later we have got to come to a modest opinion of ourselves, if ever we are to do even moderately good things.
But the "best" above referred to does not necessarily mean the most masterly. The best of a simple kind is not calculated to discourage any one - rather, it looks as if it must be easy to do that; and in trying to do it we learn how much goes to the doing it. Good design need not be of any great importance or pretensions. It may be quite simple, if only it is right; if the lines are true, the colour harmonious; if it is adapted to its place, to its use and purpose, to execution not only with the needle but in the particular kind of needlework to be employed.
There has of late years been something of a revival of needlework design in schools of art, and some very promising and even most accomplished work has been done; but in many instances it is rather design which has been translated into needlework, than design clearly made for execution with the needle. A really appropriate and practical design for embroidery should be schemed not merely with a view to its execution with the needle, but with a view to its execution in a particular stitch or stitches - possibly by a particular embroidress. To be safe in designing work so minute as that on Illustration 101 (Delicate Satin-Stitch - Worked By Miss Buckle), one must be sure of the needlewoman who is to execute it.
Reference to old work must not be taken to imply that design should be in imitation of what has been done, or that it should follow on those
lines. Design was once upon a time traditional; but the chain of tradition has snapped, and now conscious design must be eclectic - that is to say, one must study old work to see what has been done, and how it has been done, and then do one's own in one's own way. It is at least as foolish to break quite away from what has been done as to tether yourself to it. And in what has been done you will see, not only what is worth doing, but what is not. That, each must judge for herself. To the lover of ornament it will seem that the thing best worth doing in embroidery is ornament. Any way, this much is certain (and you have only to go to the nearest museum to prove it), that there is no need for needleworkers, unless their instinct draws them that way, to take to needle painting, to pictures in silk, or even to flower stitching.
The limitations of embroidery are not so rigidly marked as the boundaries of many another craft. There is little technical difficulty in representing flowers, for example, very naturally - too naturally for any dignified decorative purpose. Embroiderer or embroidery designer will, as a matter of fact, be constantly inspired by flower forms, and silk gives the pure colour of their petals as nearly as may be. But, though the pattern be a veritable flower garden, the embroidress will not forget, to use the happy phrase of William Morris, that she is gardening with silks and gold threads.
Let the needleworker study the work of the needle in preference to that of the brush; let her aim at what stuff and threads will give her, and give more readily than would something else. Let her work according to the needle, and take that for her guide, not be misled by what some other tool can do better, but do what the needle can do best, and be content with that. That is the way to Art in Needlework, and the surest way.